Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

January 28, 2009

Sayers’ Gaudy Night — and Chandler

On the Poe’s Deadly Daughters weblog, Elizabeth Zelvin
selects her favorite mystery authors — and there’s not a
man among them:

“My feminist dander is up, and I’m ready to charge to the
defense of the traditional and especially the character-driven
mystery, as well as the matrilineage of mysteries by women.”

Dorothy L. Sayers,
Gaudy Night
The presiding genius of the Detective Club during the Golden Age of mystery in the 1930s, Sayers reached her peak in this mystery without a murder that is also a richly textured novel, which I believe earned her the right to be considered the mother of the character-driven mystery. I’ve posted this opinion elsewhere, but it bears saying again. The key passage is one in which Harriet Vane asks Lord Peter Wimsey for advice about her novel.

“‘Well,’ said Harriet….”I admit that Wilfrid is the world’s worst goop. But if he doesn’t conceal the handkerchief, where’s my plot?’
[Peter suggests a way to define Wilfrid’s character that would give him motivation for concealing the handkerchief.] ….’He’d still be a goop, and a pathological goop, but he would be a bit more consistent.’
‘Yes–he’d be interesting. But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he’ll throw the whole book out of balance.’
‘You would have to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.’
….’It would hurt like hell.’
‘What would that matter, if it made a good book?'”

I suspect that Sayers and her muse had precisely this conversation in her head, and Gaudy Night was the result. The creation of Harriet and Sayers’s increasingly three-dimensional portrayal of her both in relation to Lord Peter and grappling with her own dilemmas regarding her work and what kind of life to choose ushered in the transition of the traditional mystery from primarily a puzzle to a puzzle embedded in a character-driven novel.”

Mike Tooney


  1. It’s always interesting to read how well-liked Gaudy Night is. I was never able to share that feeling myself, though, so I always feel left out!


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

  2. Me too, Curt. The popularity of “Gaudy Night” baffles me. Sayers was a dreadful writer, and when she couldn’t even be bothered to create an interesting mystery….well, we have GN. By the way, have you noticed how many people claim to have read it and yet pronounce it “Gawdy NIGHT” (accent on last word), when if you really have read it, you know it’s “GOWdy Night” (accent on first syllable, which rhymes with “how”)? I wonder if GN is one of those books like “Ulysses” or “In Search of Lost Time” that people hate to admit they couldn’t actually get through?



    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 6:54 pm | Reply

  3. LOL, well, I had to force myself through it in the name of
    research. I can understand what people like about it, but I don’t
    have that positive personal reaction myself to it at all, I have to


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 6:54 pm | Reply

  4. She wasn’t a dreadful writer. She’s not to everyones taste, but that’s
    not quite the same thing. Having gone through the entire DLS canon a
    few years ago, I did not find the book particularly difficult to get
    through. The mystery is not really strong enough to carry a book of its
    size, but as a study of an enclosed, feminine environment it worked
    very well. Personally speaking, I found FIVE RED HERRINGS much harder
    to get through.

    mr. molesack

    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

  5. Well, I’ve donned my armor and ducked my head, but I love Gaudy Night. It’s one
    of my all-time favorites, and I always reread this when I’m going through a
    stressful or unhappy time. I find it a good mystery with a contemplation of the
    idea of head vs heart.

    Jeffrey Marks

    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 6:57 pm | Reply

  6. Most people do, so you are in good company; but I prefer even railway
    timetables to Peter and Harriet and, wait, yet more Harriet! 😉


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 6:57 pm | Reply

  7. I guess part of my problem with this book is I find academic life in
    it quite unbelievably idealized: all these happy scholars united in
    their dedication to the for the truth! It seems like a wish
    fulfillment novel on Sayers’ part. Of maybe this just reflects my
    sad experiences! 😉


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

  8. Yes, I would agree with your thoughts on this topic and would cite my own
    experience also. Academic life on this side of the pond is fraught with the need
    to publish endless numbers of papers suitable for professional journals,
    initially to secure tenure, and then to advance to full professor. There is also
    quite a lot of unseemly back-biting and competition along the way, so the image
    of the earnest dreamy-eyed bluestocking awash in metaphors or the pipe-smoking
    tweedy male counterpart is hardly typical these days, although there’s still a
    few out there! Think dog-eat-dog with refined accents and that would be fairly
    accurate, but then that’s true of any profession, I would imagine.

    I have found it necessary to put myself firmly in the context of the times when
    reading “Gaudy Night” and that is helpful on the whole, but even so, Harriet
    irritates me and I long to shake Peter. Frankly, all he has to do is say he
    understands her position and depart; all she has to do is say farewell quite
    clearly and make a permanent exit, and both should cease the games. But then
    where would we be? 🙂

    The crime, as such, is a fairly unpleasant one, what with harpies and similar
    nastiness, and it takes Harriet a while to sort the whole thing out, so that was
    intriguing. The thing I do recall is the fact that Annie ground an exquisite
    chess piece beneath her heel out of spite, and that was more than enough for me
    who looks upon chess pieces as marvelous in themselves, both in terms of
    potential challenge and just to admire as little works of art!

    Perhaps I am grasping at straws, but occasionally I do take the wretched book
    out and have still another good read before placing it back on the shelf! There
    is something to be said for Peter’s “breathing as though he had been running”
    and Harriet’s sudden realization of tumbling head-over-heels with the chap at
    the other end of the punt.

    Possibly it helps to be a hopeless romantic: after all, I am still spellbound by
    “Casablanca” and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” 🙂


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

  9. Hmmm…Yes, it’s hard to keep a civil tongue in one’s head where
    Sayers is concerned, but I promise to do so.

    It’s not just that I don’t like her sensibility and characters
    (though I most certainly do not), or that (as has been pointed out)
    her picture of university life in GN is unrealistic. When I said she
    was a dreadful WRITER, I was referring to her sentences. I don’t own
    any Sayers so I can’t pull out a few exemplary howlers, but here’s a
    way to think about it: You’re teaching an introductory lit class to
    college freshmen and you want to share the joys of first-rate writing
    and give them a sense of what the English language is capable of. So
    your syllabus offers Twain, and Nabokov, and Woolf, and Joyce, and
    Morrison, and . . . Dorothy Sayers?! I think not.

    Is this an unfair level of comparison? Why? Good writing is good
    writing, and most GA writers are pretty poor stylists; DLS is a tad
    worse than average. The point is…WE DON’T READ GA MYSTERIES FOR
    THE DARN STYLE!! “The Nine Tailors” is a whale of a good mystery,
    and I’ll reread it with admiration DESPITE the style.

    OK, I’m off my hobby horse…thanks for listening!


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:00 pm | Reply

  10. Gaudy Night is clearly an utopia, both academic and feminist. The two aspects
    are inseparable. The college is a kind of earthly heaven because it is
    cumulatively a college and female-only. Males are predominantly viewed with
    amused detachment throughout the novel. There are nasty women, but they are
    outsiders. Utopia is only possible because the characters are both women and
    academics. It is an eulogy of the female elite.

    I dislike the prototypical feminist worldview but I like Sayers. One must put it
    in context. In Sayers’ time, women were still struggling hard for their social
    visibility in almost all fields. Still, she is never primitive or excessive,
    even if I could live without Wimsey’s self-inflicted humiliation. I also like
    this novel. It’s a long murderless novel but it’s always interesting. This is
    not easy to accomplish.

    Calling Sayers “a dreadful writer” is much worse than calling Stout “a hack”! In
    purely literary terms it’s difficult to find better among traditional detective
    writers (possibly only GK Chesterton). Her books were not perfect puzzles (nor
    she intended them to be) but they are extremely well conceived and written. It’s
    the first time I see her attacked with such virulence on strictly literary
    terms. Even Chandler admitted she could write and praised her minor characters.
    His (and most people’s) opposition to Sayers usually betrays a refusal to
    believe that people like Peter Wimsey and the world he inhabits actually exist
    (or be nice). This is reverse snobbery. Of course they do exist – I know some
    perfectly decent Lord Peter types and I’m not even British. I don’t even find
    Sayers particularly snobbish if compared to some of her contemporaries. She
    obviously believed in a social order in which everybody knew their place, but
    her books depict
    extraordinary people from all social strata as well as upper class idiots and
    criminals, Wimsey’s sister is married to a police inspector and Wimsey himself
    would probably give an arm for Bunter.

    Sayers’ worst sin as a writer was becoming in love with her character.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:00 pm | Reply

  11. Henrique,

    What did you think of what Edmund Wilson had to say about Nine
    Tailors? His attack on Sayers, Allingham and Marsh seems pretty

    Another dissenting view on Sayers can be found in Q. D. Leavis. Of
    course, neither one of these individuals was what you would call a fan
    of British Golden Age mystery in general. They don’t like anybody
    within that school (well, I think Wilson thought The Burning Court was

    I think I’m more critical of the view that Sayers’ great merit is that
    she became a “realistic” writer. Gaudy Night and Nine Tailors may or
    may not be great novels, but are they really monuments of “realism”?
    they seem pretty idealized to me. However, I never thought “realism”
    was the guide to greatness in detective fiction anyway. Also, the
    love relationship of Harriet and Peter isn’t on the more insipid level
    of many such relationships in GA books and thrillers. I’d take Peter
    and Harriet over Tommy and Tuppence, myself–as long as they aren’t
    quoting Latin at each other.

    I think there’s a huge divide into opposing camps people on the whole
    Peter-Harriet matter. Actually, I like strong Poison and Have His
    Carcase, think those are two of her very best, so I can’t really say I
    can’t stand the romance. But with the latter two Peter-Harriet
    novels, it just becomes too much for me. But Gaudy Night sold better
    than any of her other books, didn’t it, so a lot of people wanted to
    read a college novel with romance and some mystery, clearly. And the
    feminism angle is interesting for the period, certainly much more so
    than what you get in Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds.

    The subject of a snobbishness in the GA detective novel is a big one!
    I think it’s interesting, though, how fans of the Crime Queens will
    defend Crime Queen A against snobbishness by pointing to the equal
    snobbishness of Crime Queen B and then vice versa. I was just reading
    a defense of Georgette Heyer on the grounds that she was no more
    snobbish than Sayers! It might be interesting to expand the circle of
    comparison a bit beyond these women, though. I’m a bit leery of
    absolutely equating GA detective fiction with the Crime Queens,
    popular as they are. I’ve been rereading Heyer’s work and find you
    just have to get used to a dismissive attitude to servants, who are
    treated as simpleminded creatures who alternately burst into tears and
    shudder with excited anticipation of gossipy morsels of news about
    their betters when there’s a murder in the Great House. It’s from
    stuff like this that all the great GA cliches were drawn, but I don’t
    believe the cliches necessarily apply equally to everyone in the
    period. And people seem to have different responses to different
    authors. Nicolas Freeling, I believe, was very dismissive towards
    Allingham, in part for her social views, but loved Sayers.

    I tend to think of Sayers as more intellectually snobbish and the
    others more socially snobbish? Sayers of course was quite a learned
    person in the field, as her critical writings demonstrate. But
    sometimes I think she’s a little too anxious to portray learning for
    learning’s sake. Of course, then there’s Michael Innes! But then I
    think this is something a lot of people enjoy about these books, the
    atmosphere of learnedness. You can learn a lot in a Rhode or Austin
    Freeman too, but it will be about science. I’m not sure people find
    that so interesting anymore.

    I wish Ruth Rendell would rewrite Gaudy Night from Annie’s
    perspective, that would be a fascianting take on it from the classist
    angle. Her revelation scene is the only thing I can remember about
    the film adaptation.

    Peter might well have given his arm to Bunter, but only after Bunter
    had suitably dressed it. 😉

    I like the line in one novel (not Sayers) that the manservant “was
    almost more a friend of the family than a servant.” Almost!


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:01 pm | Reply

  12. John,

    I think you should feel free to state your views (unless you hate
    John Rhode ;)). I was just reading a book on Sayers that seemed to
    be comparing her in every other sentence to Dickens, Trollope, etc.
    I felt it was a bit overenthusiastic. I don’t really find the
    characters in Nine Tailors, for example, as memorable as those in,
    say, Great Expectations (not that they really need to be). I think
    of the Crime Queens my favorite as a writer/stylist probably was
    Allingham, when she keep her tendency to overwrite in check.

    Of Sayers’ later writings, I actually like her essays better. In
    fact I rather feel about Sayers like I do about PD James. My
    favorite PD JAmes from the last twenty years actually is Time to be
    in Earnest. I wish she had written more non-fiction. Whenever her
    characters in her mysteries launch into those Social State of
    England speeches, I find myself thinking, Ms. JAmes, why didn’t you
    write an essay about this!


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

  13. I realize I may have dumped a bit hard on Sayers, out of context.
    The context, for me, is what I tried to suggest in my thought
    experiment involving a college lit class.

    I love GA fiction, and I read and reread it constantly. What I love,
    though, is the puzzle-making ingenuity and the brilliant narrative
    misdirections. At the risk of over-generalization, I don’t think a
    single one of the Golden Agers was a good writer – it’s not just
    Sayers, though her faults offend me rather more deeply than some of
    her less pretentious colleagues. “Good writer” by what standard? The
    standard of pedagogy, which is how good anythings are transmitted
    from generation to generation. There is a reason why Golden Age
    writers are not taught in literature classes, and it has nothing to
    do with “genre”: They do not write well. (And believe it or not,
    I’m not a university teacher!)

    We can and should love the Golden Age for its many virtues, but we
    really mustn’t kid ourselves that Sayers or Christie or Carr or
    Allingham or Queen or Crispin were “good writers.” An hour’s time
    spent with a truly good writer will disabuse us of such a notion.

    I do hold Rex Stout to be the sole possible exception, but insofar as
    he writes well, he is going against the grain of the Golden Age and
    approaching the voice-driven Modern Crime Novel – which, while on the
    whole much better written, I don’t like nearly as much!

    I could have put “in my opinion” after every sentence of the above,
    because obviously I’m no authority and this is just one guy’s take on
    it. I welcome others’ thoughts…



    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:03 pm | Reply

  14. John

    This reminds me of how Anthony Boucher reviewed genre works. He didn’t compare
    them to “literature” or good writing. He judged each work on how well the author
    executed what he/she had set out to do. If the author wanted to write a locked
    room mystery, was that mystery compelling? If the author wanted to make a
    statement about modern culture or university life or a social issue, how well
    did the author pull it off? That’s the fair way to assess a story. You can’t
    fault Sayers for not writing something in the classics of British literature, if
    she really wanted to write a good mystery story. She obviously felt that her
    mysteries were not in keeping with her other works as she eventually moved to
    just writing her religious works.

    In the same vein, I wouldn’t fault Wuthering Heights or Animal Farm for not
    having a ripping good murder in the midst of it. That’s not what the book set
    out to do. (The only time I did this was in “Murder in the Cathedral” by TS
    Eliot. I chose to read it in high school thinking it was a good mystery and was
    sorely disappointed.)

    And Gaudy Night always makes me wish that Harriet had completed her life of
    Sheridan Le Fanu. I bet it would have been a great work.

    Jeffrey Marks

    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

  15. Jeff,

    Not to mention Sayers’ life of Wilkie Collins!

    Come to think of it Harriet and Sayers have certain similarities! 😉


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

  16. Yes, you are right about Wilson. But Wilson is not a very good example. He
    though detective writers and readers were all morons. I haven’t read Leavis.

    Maybe Sayers was an intellectual snob. Or maybe she only appreciated cultured
    and intelligent people. I don’t think she particularly snob on a social level,
    anyway. There are more interesting and stimulating working class characters in
    the Sayers books that in the combined entire works of Christie and Carr. In this
    sense, her books seem more realistic than those by most of the British detective
    writers of the period, because they don’t depict the upper-middle class as a
    part of society insulated from the rest.

    Moreover, Sayers’ working class characters are real people. Sometimes Sayers
    took more pains to draw minor, working class characters than her upper class
    protagonists. Chandler liked the former because they were well drawn and
    disliked the latter because they were upper class. He tried to rationalize this
    by implying Sayers was lazy: she would write good books if she stopped shallow
    writing books about the shallow upper class and started to write books about
    those who (he thought) committed murder in real life. This is typical of a trend
    that equates upper class with snob and shallow. I really don’t understand this.

    I don’t think the Vane-Wimsey romance is a particularly high point of the books.
    But at least it allowed Sayers to develop Wimsey into a full-fledged
    three-dimensional character in a way that is not usual for detective writers of
    the period.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

  17. John,

    The ideas of “good” and “bad writing” are so subjective that one may only have
    opinions about this. My opinion is that your assessment of GAD writers in this
    respect is somewhat unfair.

    First of all, what does the “writing” in “good writing” mean? Is it only prose?
    I don’t think so. “Good writing” is what makes a story good. Character
    development, plot, descriptive abilities, evocative power, suspense,
    imagination, originality of theme and setting, psychological insight, among
    other aspects, all contribute to make a book good. Their absence certainly may
    contribute to make a book bad. So, I think it is incongruous to say that a
    writer who writes satisfying books with good, imaginative plots, set in
    convincing scenarios, with convincing characters, is not a good writer just
    because his/her prose is not on the Nobel level. This would be as absurd as
    saying Chandler was a bad writer because his plots were lousy. A perfect writer
    would have all the required qualities, but a good writer may not have some, or
    not have them in a high degree.

    Even with regard to prose, I believe your assessment is unfair. The idea that
    GAD writers were all bad prose stylists is a cliche. Chesterton’s prose stands
    comparison with any of the foremost writers of the 20th Century (he is, in fact,
    one of them). Doyle, Bentley, Bailey, Mason, Wade, Blake, Hare, Innes, Mitchell,
    Sayers and Allingham were well above the average, even outside the mystery
    field. The prose in the best Carr’s works is very good, although it clearly
    wasn’t his main concern and it decayed significantly in the later books. There
    are other examples.

    In terms of prose, I don’t believe the average GAD book was worse than today’s
    average crime book. Only, standards vary. Some time ago, Mike Grost pointed out
    – correctly, IMO – that S.S. Van Dine’s prose was in keeping with the highest
    standards of style of his time. Today, most people find it stifled. Simplicity
    of vocabulary and directness of expression became the key. Individuality of
    style is out. Some time ago I read some current best-sellers and all of them
    seemed written by the same person, who had the vocabulary of an educated 14 old.
    Frankly, I prefer Sayers.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:05 pm | Reply

  18. I’ve always thought of Sayers as one of the half dozen best detective writers.
    She succeeded almost single-handedly in preserving the elaborate detection of
    the “humdrums”, while turning the detective story into a novel about people or

    Her prose was also superb – one has only to look at The Nine Tailors or
    Murder Must Advertise (particularly the extended metaphor – almost a Donnean
    conceit – which argues that the drug trade and the advertising industry are
    morally equivalent, since they force people to buy things which they do not need
    and which are bad for them).

    I certainly wouldn’t consider Sayers a realistic writer. She was undeniably
    one of the detective writers who turned the detective story into myth (or, as
    Nicholas Blake would have it, recognised its mythic qualities); The Nine Tailors
    is, like the Father Brown or Reggie Fortune stories, a parable. (One only has
    to look at PD James’s later works to see how ill-suited this approach is to
    psychological naturalism.)

    She believed that the detective story had to go back to the roots of the English
    detective story in the mid-C19th, when Wilkie Collins (about whom she started to
    write) wrote character-driven detectitive stories which were also novels in
    their own right.(As early a book as Unnatural Death is strongly influenced by
    Collins, specifically Armadale, with its woman poisoner and black heir.)

    I wouldn’t call Sayers a snob, but I would call her an elitist – which is a very
    different and much better thing. An elitist is not someone who sneers at the
    lower classes; rather, an elitist believes that literature, music, art,
    architecture, philosophy and history are among the very best that civilisation
    has to offer, and that, through education and with effort, people from any
    background can appreciate culture (literature, music, art, philosophy, history)
    and become a better person as a result.

    Sayers’s world is very much socially mobile. The middle classes – characters
    like Harriet Vane (professional classes) and Inspector Parker (lower middle) –
    are sturdier and more energetic than the upper classes, who are generally
    portrayed as in-bred, fox-hunting nincompoops (the Duke of Denver). They
    provide a much-needed transfusion of fresh blood into the effete aristocracy.Â
    (It’s also worth noting that Wimsey’s friend Freddy Arbuthnot marries the Jewish
    Rachel Levy.)

    Nick Fuller

    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

  19. > Well, I’ve donned my armor and ducked my head, but I love Gaudy Night. It’s
    > one of my all-time favorites, and I always reread this when I’m going through
    > a stressful or unhappy time. I find it a good mystery with a contemplation
    > of the idea of head vs heart.
    > Jeff

    I’m with you, Jeff! As a female and an Anglophile who loves
    academia (alas, from afar) I was transported to that wonderful environment as an
    “invisible alumna”, a fly on the wall from the future!
    I also re-read it when I wanted to block out the gloom of the corporate
    world in which I found myself and still reread it now I am retired from the


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

  20. Xavier,

    I think [Wilson] and Chandler reflect to some extent the whole class
    issue, as Henrique was indicating in reference to Chandler. I think
    they took a strong distaste to the gentlemen aristocrat detective
    type from the get-go. Chandler actually had a pretty good opinion
    of Crofts and Austin Freeman. Some have claimed that you have a
    gender issue as well, as men have tended to elevate the tough
    American hardboiled and dismiss the cozy English Golden Age
    detective novel so strongly associated with the Crime Queens. In
    the past, at least, the Crime Queens obviously had many male
    admirerers. I do wonder how the gender ratio has changed over the
    last sixty years, however. Of course we’re told men read less
    fiction of any sort today.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:08 pm | Reply

  21. Personal esthetics played a part too. Chandler and Wilson, for all their
    differences, had similar conservative views on what makes for “literature” and
    what doesn’t, and “realism” was one of the decisive criterions to separate the
    wheat from the chaff. Sayers predictably failed the test (how many upper-class
    amateur detectives have you met in real life?) while the Freemen got a pass for
    sticking to basic requirements of verisimilitude.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  22. Yes, Xavier, I agree; and I think that ties in with the class issue
    too. “Realism” for them has a leftward slant.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  23. Xavier has a great point about Chandler’s concern with “realism”. This
    was something Chandler vocally supported.

    But I’m not sure I agree with suggestions from others that Chandler
    saw things politically.

    Was Chandler a “leftist”?

    Is there any evidence in his fiction of left wing concerns?

    Mainly Chandler seems apolitical or nonpolitical. He opposed police corruption – a common concern of a lot of Black Mask writers. But otherwise, I can’t see a lot of politics in Chandler.

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

  24. Xavier wrote:

    >Personal esthetics played a part too. Chandler and Wilson, for all their
    differences, had similar conservative views on what makes for “literature”
    and what doesn’t, >and “realism” was one of the decisive criterions to
    separate the wheat from the chaff. Sayers predictably failed the test (how
    many upper-class amateur detectives >have you met in real life?) while the
    Freemen got a pass for sticking to basic requirements of verisimilitude.

    I have to say that I have always been highly amused that Chandler considered
    his work an example of “realism” in detective fiction. I’ve never met an
    upper-class amateur detective, but I do happen to know a private
    investigator. He became one because of his love of Chandler, Hammett,
    Macdonald, etc., but in over twenty-five years as a PI, he has worked on one
    murder case.

    Chandler’s depiction of Marlowe and his profession is, to me, as
    romanticized in its way as Sayers’ depiction of Wimsey. Marlowe is more a
    mythic figure than a real one. Chandler sets up the allegory at the
    beginning of _The Big Sleep_ by invoking the image of the chivalrous knight.
    Hammett’s approach is far more “real” to me. At least he knew what the job
    was really like.

    If someone wants “realism” in crime fiction, I would suggest the work of
    George Pelecanos. He’s about the only crime writer I’ve ever read who could
    be said to write realistic crime fiction.

    Oh, and Wilson was an idiot. 🙂



    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

  25. Right on the nail. Chandler himself admitted his books were “fantasies of the
    possible”. This is in total contradiction with his axiom according to which any
    fiction aims at realism.

    A reflection: Chandler’s implied idea that books by Sayers et al were “fantasies
    of the impossible” presuposes that people like Peter Wimsey and his world don’t
    exist. Of course they do. Only someone blinded by class prejudice could deny it.
    One is free to dislike books about British noblemen, but that is a totally
    different issue. Has anybody criticized Brideshead Revisited or The Go-Between
    for being unrealistic?

    Hammett fiction may have been less idealized than Chandler, but Poisonville is
    utterly unbelievable, and Nick and Nora are closer to screwball than the mean
    streets. And he wrote the autobiographical “From the memoirs of a private
    detective”, implictly admitting the distance between fact and (his own) fiction.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:11 pm | Reply

  26. There is a lot of social criticism in Chandler’s work but his was
    an ethical, moral perspective – not an ideological one. It’s human nature, not
    just society, that is crooked. This sets him apart from Dashiell Hammett and
    Ross MacDonald who were much more politically conscious. The recent inclusion of
    The Big Sleep in the Nation’s Guide to the Nation as one of twenty “liberal”
    detective novels thus seems me slightly far-fetched; a liberal reading of
    Chandler is indeed possible, but so is a conservative one – great writers just
    don’t let cage themselves so easily. (Barry must be chuckling before his
    computer screen as he reads the praise I just delivered on Raymond)



    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:11 pm | Reply

  27. Dean James wrote:

    <> Quite ironically since the chivalrous
    knight as we know him is largely a fictional/idealized figure, inherited from
    tales that were insufferably irrealistic by Chandler’s standards.

    Amen to that. Friendly,

    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:12 pm | Reply

  28. My impression of Chandler is that he would belong more on the
    liberal-left in the way he viewed the world. That wouldn’t
    necessarily group him directly with Hammett and Hellman, however!
    However, his views of the police and of the rich, for example, would
    seem to set him apart from many of the British GA writers, as Symons

    The conventional view is hardboiled is liberal-left, British GA is
    conservative-right, at least on class issues. On social issues–
    gender, sexuality–I don’t belive people can divide things so easily.

    But my Chandler review is a couple weeks off yet! I’d be quite
    interested to hear what people have to say.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:12 pm | Reply

  29. As far as I can tell, Chandler’s books don’t align with either
    conservative or left-wing views.

    In “The Big Sleep”, Chandler looks at a rich family. Carmen Sternwood
    is a rotten rich woman, into every sort of decadent behavior. Her
    father General Sternwood is noble, and his friendship with working man
    Rusty Regan is idealized as the ultimate in male bonding.
    Today’s conservatives, who seemingly believe rich people are all
    saints who actions create the economy, would probably never create
    Carmen Sternwood, who depicts the rich at their worst.

    Doctrinaire leftists would never have created General Sternwood, an
    idealized rich man living in a huge mansion. They would have made some
    sort of bloated plutocrat who exploits the poor instead.

    AS far as I can tell, “The Big Sleep” is typical of Chandler’s
    writings. There is a lot in his books attacking police corruption –
    but very little else in the way of politics.

    One might contrast Chandler with the liberal Ellery Queen and the
    conservative John Dickson Carr. Just about anyone who reads Queen’s
    “Halfway House” would conclude it is a left wing book. Anyone who
    reads Carr’s “A Graveyard to Let” would find it a conservative book.
    I just don’t find this sort of political commentary in Chandler.

    I’m uncomfortable with people trying to “read in” politics in Chandler.
    Sure, you can point out things in Chandler that indicates he was not a
    far-right conservative in the Republican mode. Does this mean you can
    deduce he is a Leftist. Nope!

    Chandler seems somewhere in the non-political middle.

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:12 pm | Reply

  30. >The conventional view is hardboiled is liberal-left, British GA is
    >conservative-right, at least on class issues. On social issues–
    >gender, sexuality–I don’t belive people can divide things so easily.

    One certainly can’t with issues of sexuality. Considering the rather virulent
    homophobia of _The Big Sleep_, I would have to say that Chandler was not in the
    least liberal on this front. Reading this book left a very nasty taste in my
    mouth. If it had been the first Chandler I read, I probably would never have
    read another one.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  31. I’m not referring to a modern-day political context at all, that’s
    something I wouldn’t find very useful in a discussion of these authors.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  32. Dean,

    and then there’s The Maltese Falcon! The masculine aesthetic of
    these hardboiled books seems in part to involve denigration of men
    deemed insufficently masculine, doesn’t it? That seems less of a
    preoccupation of the British “cozy,” where more effeminate men may
    be used for comic relief, but there’s not such a nasty, even
    violent, edge to it.

    You mentioned John Rhode in another post. You do find some dry
    humor in his books, but not in Claverton Affair or Harley Street.
    Harley Street has a clever plot, but is late Rhode and tediously
    narrated. I like Claverton, but it’s rather more serious, old-
    fashioned and formal then many of his books. I’m not sure Harper
    did Rhode much of a favor reprinting those two. The problem today
    of course is that many of his thirties books are so hard to find.
    The best book for you might be Murder M.D., which is under Street’s
    Miles Burton psuedonym. It is more in the style of a Crime Queen
    village story and pays more attention to manners.

    Crofts may be too lacking in literary style for you? Not much humor
    in Crofts, a very earnest fellow.

    Henry Wade, have you read him? He is very unfairly treated as a
    humdrum. You might like some of the more humorous Coles books, or
    those by E. R. Punshon. J. J. Connington had some good books, he
    can be very sardonic.


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:14 pm | Reply

  33. I actually watched The Big Sleep for the first time on TV this past weekend (it
    was DVRed from TCM) While I’d read all the Chandlers back in my youth, it had
    been some time since I’d read Big Sleep. I enjoyed the movie immensely, even
    though I did notice the homophobic names used by Chandler on a regular basis.
    Did this occur throughout the series or more so in The Big Sleep? My memory
    doesn’t recall.

    Jeffrey Marks

    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

  34. Curt:

    You’re absolutely right about _The Maltese Falcon_. Hammett definitely uses
    dismissive, slang terms for homosexuals, and Spade is of course the epitome of
    real and honorable masculinity. In _The Big Sleep_, the way I read it, Chandler
    deems the two characters (whose names escape me now) as vile and vicious because
    they are homosexual; they are not homosexuals who just happen to be vile and


    Comment by jonjermey — January 28, 2009 @ 7:15 pm | Reply

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